Ever since the 2016 Fiesta Bowl ended, football analysts and fans alike have been endlessly and repetitively debating who would and should start at quarterback for the Notre Dame football team in 2016. And although it will definitely be fascinating to see how Brian Kelly handles having two extremely competent quarterbacks at his disposal, it’s also gotten a little ridiculous how little that the general sports media have talked about anything else regarding this Fighting Irish team.
Most notably, no matter who starts at quarterback, ND will wield an absolutely scary rushing attack against all opposing defenses - and you’d hardly know it from listening to people discuss Notre Dame’s 2016 outlook.
Although the Irish lost 2015 breakout star RB CJ Prosise and two top-round offensive line picks Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin to the NFL Draft, they still remain one of the scariest teams in the country in terms of what they can do on the ground.
This all begins with the offensive line, who under coach Harry Hiestand’s incredible recruiting and coaching efforts has become an NFL linemen factory, churning out pro players and then immediately reloading with new top-flight talent. This year is no different, as Hiestand has simply moved a future first round pick (senior Mike McGlinchey) to left tackle to replace 2015 first round pick Stanley. He inserted talented junior Sam Mustipher at center to replace Martin, and promoted junior Alex Bars to starting right tackle after seeing a strong effort from him in 2015 when he filled in at guard for Quenton Nelson. Oh, and Nelson? He’s just a pre-season All-American at left guard who’s gotta be the nimblest, most-bulldozer-like 320-pound guy you’ve ever seen - and one who will likely end up a late first round pick at guard in 2017 or 2018.
Obviously, though, having a strong, athletic line can only go so far. I mean, if you put me back there at running back, I can guarantee you I would not be very successful (some would describe my speed as “is there a level lower than ‘slow’?”).
Luckily, the Fighting Irish have accumulated a stable of talented runners, led by senior Tarean Folston. Folston is exactly what you want in a running back - thick, strong, lightning-quick in his reads and cutting ability - he’s one of the most reliable backs Notre Dame has had in quite some time (his career numbers - 1,378 yards at a 5.2 yards-per-carry clip - speak for themselves). He almost never goes down on first contact, constantly barreling through and shimmying around defensive players to pick up a few extra yards.
The backup running back, who would likely start for about 95% of teams in the contiguous United States (plus Hawaii and Alaska), is sophomore Josh Adams. Adams came in as a freshman in 2015 as the less-heralded back in a two-running-back class, an unknown prospect who saw his national recruiting stock drop due to a torn ACL during his junior season. Many saw his tall, lanky build and his knee injury as signs he would ultimately end up at another position. Adams, of course, went on to set the Notre Dame freshman rushing record in 2015 with 835 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 6 touchdowns, including the longest touchdown in Notre Dame Stadium history, a 98-yard jaunt through the Wake Forest defense on senior day.
Adams possesses a second gear that Folston does not have, enabling him to complement the senior very well and provide ultimate game-breaking ability to go along with Tarean’s dependability, toughness, and strength. Watching the two of them run behind that offensive line, specifically on the left side behind the mammoths known as McGlinchey (6’7 1/2”, 310 lbs.) and Nelson (6’5”, 325 lbs.), should be an absolute treat. Also, expect ND’s red zone and short yardage success to increase at least a little bit with Folston’s between-the-tackles strength, the possibility of Zaire running with it in those situations, and Nelson and Mustipher’s ability to clear a path up the middle.
Along with Folston and Adams, there’s still more talent to unleash in the backfield. Sophomore Dexter Williams only saw a few carries in 2015, but he was able to show a few flashes of speed and cutting ability in garbage time against teams like UMass, and he’s impressed in the spring and in summer camp so far. He’ll probably earn a few carries no matter what, but if Folston or Adams goes down for any period of time, Williams looks prepared to step right in and contribute.
Then, of course, we can’t finish this breakdown of the Irish backfield without circling back to the quarterbacks - the stars of the show and the most-talked-about guys in the business. No matter if it’s Malik Zaire (the better runner of the two) or DeShone Kizer (still a very good runner), they both have shown a fantastic ability to make plays with their feet, whether by design with the read option or in an improvisational manner as they scramble out of the pocket to extend a play, and oftentimes a drive. Kizer ran for 520 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, which is pretty damn good for a green QB tossed into a tough situation because of an injury to the starter.
Combining all of this running ability with an immense offensive line made of mountain men (I don’t mean guys in raccoon fur caps and sporting massively unkempt beards, I just mean really, really, really big guys) should prove incredibly difficult for opposing defenses to stop, especially if Zaire/Kizer remains a threat to toss the ball all over the place as well (Kelly will make sure of that).
I, for one, am most excited for this rushing offense aspect of Notre Dame football in 2016, and I think everyone else should be as well. The QB situation will be decided eventually, but it won’t change the fact that the Irish’s strength and most talented returning players all reside on the offensive side of the ball, along the line and in the backfield.